Podcast: Industry Liaison – National Center for Supply Chain Automation

By Published On: June 9, 2021

Hosts: Mike Ogle and Rodney Apple

In This Episode:

In this episode of the Supply Chain Careers Podcast, we talk with Steve Harrington, the Industry Liaison for the National Center for Supply Chain Automation, and his role managing a national leadership team of supply chain executives and logistics industry stakeholders. Steve shares his supply chain career journey, starting from working on the warehouse floor to working his way up into leadership, then to establishing a Southern California Logistics Industry Association. Steve talked with us about the evolution of automation and the forces creating a need for supply chain technicians, a career pathway that combines aspects of traditional industrial mechanics, with information technology and highly computerized controls to support modern and future needs for reliable high volume and fast response supply chains. Steve also talks about volunteering, connecting people, and how supply chain leaders are working with community colleges and technical schools around the country to create sustainable talent supply chains.

Steve Harrington Bio:

Steve Harrington is the Industry Liaison for the National Center for Supply Chain Automation. In this role, he is responsible for the development and oversight of a national industry leadership team consisting of supply chain executives and logistics industry stakeholders. He has 28 years of experience in supply chain operations most recently as the West Coast Logistics Manager for the Perrigo Co., a Fortune 500 generic drug manufacturer. Steve is past President and Chairman of the Distribution Management Association of Southern California (DMA), a 250 member logistics industry association he developed, organized, and led. He is a two-time “Spirit of the Entrepreneur” award winner for his work in the field of economic development. He is a graduate of Cal State University Fullerton with a degree in Business Administration.


Thank you. Looking forward to the interview and the podcast.

First of all, when I started in the supply chain, supply chain careers weren’t something people even looked at or considered. I started out in a warehouse job because it was something I worked on part time while I went to college. It was definitely something I never looked at as a career. And my father helped me land a union job in a warehouse working for Vons grocery company. I was quite shocked when I started, I was 18 years old and this was very much a mans workplace and the work was difficult. You needed a strong back strong mind and agility to do it. The term dark, dirty and dangerous applied to where I worked. And the first day of my job, there was a fist fight in the warehouse. Week later, somebody flipped his forklift with his hand on the upper bar and split his hand wide open. So very much at the time it was the inmates ran the asylum and basically the workers controlled the work environment. Was the essence of that.

Now, as we talk about technology and automation and how that’s evolved in today’s modern warehouse was at the time when I started in 1978, there was something called a tow line that ran through the warehouse. It was embedded in the floor. It was a long, a motor driven chain. And the way that we pulled orders for the grocery stores was that we had a cart similar to what was at a Costco store. We would pull the metal cart down the aisles and fill the orders off of a piece of paper that we were given and load that up and stack it as high as we could and as heavy as we could, and then drag that cart to what was the center aisle, and then take a pin and drop it into the tow line. And the cart would chug through the warehouse and eventually ended up on the shipping dock. And at the time that was kind of state-of-the-art technology and that was a very advanced thing.

It took me seven years to finish school. I was working part-time and going to school. And during those seven years in that workplace where men worked, I grew up and I was basically kind of an agitator troublemaker and I turned into a trusted high producing worker as I matured and became married and had a child. And then eventually after graduation from college, I was promoted into warehouse management, something that was unique at the time in that it was in a union workforce and the managers did not come from the union workforce. There was a clear line at the time between that and fraternization and all of that. And it was very tough change going from managing, and going from working and being a best friend, all workers to managing them. It was a big leap and there was lot of life lessons. The upside was I knew the operations from a hands-on perspective and the current managers at the time, did not have that background because they were hired in as managers. So I knew the operations very well.

Kind of interesting in terms of a career pathway perspective is that today the

media has a point of attacking the logistics industry, there’s lots of warehousing facilities being built. But there’s an ongoing attack against the industry from that perspective, they say, 1400 jobs are created that are dead end jobs. They never go anywhere. But the reality is in the supply chain, there are 155 career pathways and there’s a career pathway for anybody that’s willing to work hard. Somehow there’s this mentality out there that the employers responsible for picking you up by your bootstraps and helping you move forward. But in reality, it’s your responsibility to do that. And it took me seven years to go to school and to graduate. And it wasn’t that piece of paper in a business marketing, which was a BA and anything relevant to do with working in a warehouse. But what they did was qualified me to go into management and it didn’t and teach me anything about running the warehouse or things of that nature. But what it did was teach me about perseverance and completing things and getting from point to point. But as it relates to the attack on the logistics industry today, you have jobs that are highly benefited, they pay 30% more than retail and offer a variety of career pathways. And for some reason, they’re a demon in today’s media.

Anyway, I eventually he left the grocery company at the time and went to work for a company named Perrigo. It was generic over the counter drugs and I was a west coast distribution manager. It was a great job. There are a lot of challenges and it was a great company. And over the course of that journey in what would have been about 17 years in warehouse management and 29 years working with logistics industry, was I saw a lot of changes in technology and the evolution of technology. So the evolution in electric pallet jacks, that transitioned things from people pulling the cart, to actually driving a motorized cart that did that for you and that increased productivity. At the time, the computer room for the grocery company was literally the entire basement of the grocery company. And it was kept at headquarters. There were no computers at that juncture in the warehouse, but I saw the advent of the first desktop go into a warehouse and then was part of what was the first warehouse management system implementation, which tied inventory control into labor management and integrated the systems in the warehouse. Technology began to evolve then plus the other aspect was engineered work standards for the workers. How long did tasks take? And all of a sudden people were put on what was called the clock. And it was so at that juncture, in the advent of technology, when the inmates no longer ran the asylum, right? The management began to gain control of what was going on in the operations as they became more and more efficient.

And the term logistics came forward. Before it was warehouse, all of a sudden it’s logistics, it’s a little bit sexier. As a leader for the Perrigo company, I was a west coast distribution manager for a satellite facility. So that was a transition from paper or labels per se, picking labels into a computerized system with a computer mounted on forklifts that were not industrial hardened yet at the time. And it was big thing, figuring out how to do that and then scan guns attached to those. And then UPC barcode labels on the racking and on the product and boom, the paper vanished out of the warehouse.

And again, it was another leap forward for productivity in better servicing companies. And we went from being, if you had a really good operation, your

inventory control was 95% accurate, meaning 5% of everything in the warehouse. You never knew what it was. Well, with the advent of the system like this and in some good procedures in place, all of a sudden the inventory became 98.9 to 99.8 to 99.9% accurate. And it really gained control of the operations. And then the next leap from that perspective that we went through was the implementation of what was called SAP. An enterprise wide software system implementation in that went from just the warehouse into the entire enterprise and everything from procurement, for manufacturing to customer service, to the warehouse and integrated the entire company. And at the time again, that was something very advanced to do. And when we first stood that up, it crippled the company literally for about 90 days to the perspective that our biggest customer at the time, demanded that we ship product and we had to charter an airplane to fly product, get it delivered to their warehouse at a huge expense. At any rate, you work through all of those challenges and came out the other side. Supply chain had finally come of age.

CEOs are recognizing the importance of logistics as a lynch pin in the company’s success. We’re having a VP level or C level, supply chain leaders became part of the leadership team of companies. At the time when I started in logistics, there were no programs to train, educate people in the field of logistics. By the time SAP was implemented, I was involved in that 20 years later, supply chain management was a field of study. There were some logistics programs at community colleges, just teaching basic logistics management and transportation, inventory control, things of that nature. So the education began to come forward.

And another compliment to that was of course, the evolution of the worker. And I talked about the nature of the worker and the nature of the work that I did with a strong back and strong mind and being agile. I was an athlete. Thank goodness to be able to, because a lot of guys didn’t make it through the first 30 days. It was tough work. All of a sudden you’re working with computers and understanding inventory control and using scan guns. You began to have staff to support that it began to evolve. And as I mentioned before, the whole field of supply chain management, it became a field of study because you need to figure out how to do things more efficiently

It was a series of things. I had some influences, influencers in my life, went from my father to helping me with a good work ethic and getting my first job and guidance along the way. To the guy who hired me and took a chance on me to another, a leader that I had, who helped develop me. But it was an attending a couple of industry functions for the first time ever. So there’s a group called the warehouse educational research council or WERC, which is now a part of what is called MHI. At the time they would hold annual industry events and attending those and learning about the aspect of volunteerism as it relates to supply chain careers and people getting involved in helping to get the word out about the varying aspects of what’s going on in today’s warehouse.

And then there was another one aspect and it was one day I attended a volunteer golf tournament, and there was a logistics leader up there who

coordinated the whole event. He was raising money to support a local charity. So it was through the sense of community and through the industry give back that kind of my whole view towards things evolved. I heard somebody say at one point, the first 25 years of your life are for learning. The next 25 years of your life are for earning. And then beyond that, it’s time for you to start giving back. Once you start becoming an ingrained part of society and giving back. Because of my exposure to those sorts of things in those kind of leaders that I was exposed to, I became involved as a volunteer with a Southern California based industry association called the distribution management association of Southern California.

And I ended up really involved and then I helped grow the group and lead it for 12 years. I was past president and chairman. It was through that, that I also developed a long list of industry contacts and lasting professional relationships. Occasionally some of those actually became personal friends. I learned the concept and this kind of plays out into our podcast today, which is professional courtesy. If somebody who’s a professional who reaches out to you, and asks a favor of you, you do your best to try to help them and to try to help them be successful and try to help them move forward with what it is they’re trying to achieve. And no strings attached. You do it professionally. It’s kind of like a giveback. And then the other part of that though, is the flip side. It allows me, in the term I use is collect chips, right? Because at some juncture down the road, I may or may not need a return favor. And so it’s so much easier to do favors, ask for favor from people that you’ve already done things for. I do it because it’s the right thing to do and sometimes it ends up benefiting me in terms of what I need to accomplish, things related to my work or even my personal life.

As part of my role with the distribution management association, I reached out to academics across the region that I was in the Southern California region called the inland empire and through that established scholarship programs. We were able to get a logistics program embedded at Norco college, which was a two year degree program working in general advocating for the industry and hosting huge annual forums, you’d draw four or five, 600 people to those advocating on behalf of the industry to get the message out about the industry. And, it was through this work that I developed these contacts and as a result of the contacts just led me to the national center. So when the national center became funded, I was reached out to, in terms of somebody who may be able to help them. And so what ended up eventually happening was that all of my volunteer work ended up resulting in a job, working for the national center for supply chain automation as an industry liaison, a path that I never could have expected or never could have chose.

So in parallel with the advocacy work that we were doing with the industry association, it began to draw some attention and local government workforce development professionals in local universities, as well as

well as community colleges, and people began to think about how can we support this industry ? A part of the mission of an industry group is to put data out there to the community advocating on behalf of your industry. And the reality was that one in seven jobs in the inland empire were tied to the logistics industry and the workforce development professionals needed to do something in support of that.

So in 2011, two academics were seeking funding from the national science foundation for a growing occupation that was emerging in the modern 21st century warehouse, they call the supply chain technician. And this emerging technician occupation with the distinct career pathway was occurring at the intersection of traditional industrial mechanics with computerized, motor controls and information technology. The demand for these well-paid multi-skilled technicians was growing exponentially.

And no one outside the industry knew that this was occurring. Hands-on educational training programs, contextualized to meet this growing demand were non-existent. The two academics I referenced earlier convinced the NSF program officers to see some of these actual operations in action, and he agreed to come and was taken on a tour at the time of what was a highly automated Sketchers facility in Moreno valley. And at the time it was the first known facility that I knew of with robotics inside the facility. They took him on a tour of a highly altered Cardinal health care facility. And it was a conclusion of the NSF program officer had no idea that automated systems like those we’re being used in today’s technically advanced logistics environment. He was extremely surprised and amazed, and he could see why these highly automated systems required skilled technicians to keep them operational and NSF funding for the national center for supply chain automation was approved as a result of all of that.

So that’s how all of that came about. And then as a result of that, I came aboard. And then, as the industry liaison for the national center, as the go-between with the academic team who is responsible for resource development, for the educational community, and I came on board as the industry liaison to go between and leverage my contacts from the distribution management association. Again, people that I had just done work with did the professional courtesy thing with helping them and giving back. So I had a lot of chips that I had collected that I could cash in. And as a result I was able to stand up an industry leadership team. And within three months we had our first industry leadership team meeting with the national center with 25 people from industry in the room. They never seen anything like it. National centers might get four to six industry folks into a room. So, the industry leadership team or ILT was critical in center formation, providing input, strategic direction and resources. And the one key to that was defining the center’s mission. And what is the occupational definition, which is at the core of the center’s work. And the mission of the national center for supply chain automation is to increase the number of highly skilled technicians to meet the growing national need for automation workers.

The definition that was refined by industry of a supply chain technician or automation technician is a person who installs operates, supports, upgrades or maintains the automated material handling equipment and systems that support

the supply chain. Industry has helped the center with resource development, including the textbooks introduction to the automated warehouse, six of our industry leadership team members helped the way of contributing authors for that particular, free downloadable publication that’s used today and in schools in different parts of the country. Is also used in some industry format, in terms of frontline workers, wanting to learn a little bit more about how automated systems fit into their operations. And these resources can be found at

I think an interesting term to reflect on is mechatronics. It’s the intersection of mechanical, electrical and computerized motor controls. So the integration of kind of information technology, computerized controls with traditional industrial mechanics. The evolution of it has to do with electrical, mechanical, pneumatics, combined with some PLCs, understanding how to problem solve, a little bit of basic math, that’s relevant to all of that. Courses like that, I think would be the hard skills aspect of it. And then in terms of soft skills, I think you hear that across the board with the soft skills, reading, writing, showing up to work everyday on time, doing what you say you’re going to do. If there are issues, communicate those upfront.

Soft skills are as important to employers as ever. And oftentimes in a shortage of workers, the employers make the decision to hire people with the soft skills, the important soft skills, and then teach or up-skill kind of more hard skills or a hands-on training aspect of things.

A lot of the skills are being taught in programs that are traditional integrated systems, industrial technologies, robotics, automation, electromechanics, things of that nature. There’s a lot of similarities between the specifics of what a technician in today’s 21st century warehouse needs to know, to something that’s traditionally being taught for today’s advanced manufacturing environment. And there’s also a little bit of a progression that’s been going on and occurring for awhile, as it relates to industry 4.0 concepts.

So the national center was funded by NSF and one of the key elements of their emerging technician occupations that pay living wages from the start and have an existing career pathway. This emerging occupation in today’s 21st century warehouse has some specific skills that you need to know to work in those environments, but the core elements of it are being taught in today’s advanced manufacturing programs. And then you do some additional contextualization for skills related to the automated warehouse.

The goal is to get people hired. You get enough skills to get a job that’s pays you 40, $45,000 a year out the door. These occupations pay a baseline, a minimum $18 an hour, and up to $25 an hour dependent upon where you’re at regionally. And that’s a start, kind of like a level one tech, entry-level tech, and they progress through a tech one, two and three, more senior level people that are earning in

the 60 to $80,000 a year range. And then the leaders that manage the facilities that doing varying aspects to help support that, 80,000, 90,000, the biggest leaders in that field, they make 130 to $150,000 a year. So relates to the NSF mission to support the technician occupation at the foundational level. That career pathways really met with this particular occupation.

I don’t know that the center’s actually creating careers. I think industry creates the careers and the career pathways. What the center’s done is help define what those are. When the two academics had reached out to the NSF program officer to have them come out it’s because nobody knew that these jobs even occurred, let alone that there was a career pathway there, what the wages pay and what industry’s demand was for the occupation. So I wouldn’t say the center actually creates the careers as well as helps define them, puts data behind them and then helps advocate on behalf of that. What we’ve done is work with our industry leadership team to define that and develop that and provide varying examples to educators who are looking for resources in order to convey that to students.

Something that’s interesting from the industry perspective is the recruitment for the career pathway itself. So the career pathway was defined as a mechanic. People would call it a mechanic we’re not using in that has its own connotations. People think of mechanic, they think of auto mechanic. They think of dark, dirty, dangerous kind of workplaces and that kind of thing, and covered in oil and dirt and a dirty uniform and all of that kind of thing. Most of it is not in those type of facilities anymore, which are highly automated and very clean. Some of our employers actually had to go back and work with their HR departments to redefine the job descriptions because what was happening was that HR is recruiting people based on the old job descriptions, which weren’t meeting the new and evolving need on the computerized motor control side and on the kind of the ability to interact with computer systems, and kind of an overall understanding about how things flow.

Now, you have computerized maintenance management systems, CMMS, which drive the workload of the technician, and they need to know how to input data into that screen and the full integration of those systems that it does self-generating part ordering. They had to redefine it to the new kind of technician, the automation technician, the supply chain technician, so that HR is recruiting the right type of person.

And as it relates to schooling and training, you have to recognize the focus might be on getting, earning a certificate in supply chain automation to be able to get yourself employed. But in the meantime, continuing your education. Because again, about the point I made earlier, it’s the individual’s responsibility to pick themselves up by the bootstraps and take responsibility for their own career pathway. Nobody else is going to do it for them, but to work toward an AA degree and perhaps then move toward a four-year degree in an engineering field. There’s a lot of engineers that are involved in this sort of work, but, it’s a starting point on a career pathway that can lead in that direction.

As somebody who’s never been a technician himself, I’ll do my best to answer that. An entry level technician is going to be receiving direction from their manager or leader and in terms of basic preventive maintenance on systems, a little bit of repairs, a little bit of equipment maintenance, and in today’s workplace, human machine interface showing the flow of the logistics operation on the screen. It’s kind of like a video game. You see bottlenecks that areas that are red. It might indicate to you that that’s an area that needs attention and you address or assess the nature of that problem and then work with your leaders to be able to address it.

Keeping track of your work or your daily activities through the CMMS system that I touched upon earlier, the computerized maintenance management software system. You’re generally kind of a support person and will get a work as needed. The facilities are running almost all the time. And so they have to find ways to maintain the equipment, keep it operational, to meet the customer demands.

As I was touching upon earlier, the traditional ways that people work and interact in today’s workplace has evolved. And you might start at the beginning of the day in some form of a huddle and a meeting with your boss, getting the kind of assignments or the idea of what you’re working on for the day. But, your day is going to be out and about in the warehouse environment. And you’re going to have the ability to communicate via radio, via maybe a tablet that you’re carrying, with that human machine interface, managing your workflow throughout the day. And then as you’re completing tasks, you’re entering that into your tablet. And then from there, you’re getting your next task to do and that sort of thing. That’s how the work has evolved from traditional to more modern. And of course the skill set that people will need that people need in order to do the work is a higher level skillset.

Definitely up and coming field and more modeled to somebody who’s not maybe initially tailored for going after a college degree or a four year degree or that sort of thing. A growth in the adoption of automated equipment and systems was happening at a significant level already. What’s happened is that systems have become much more dependable, much more affordable, and they produce a lot more. And so it makes more sense for companies in today’s e-commerce world, in order to meet customer demands, to put in these automated equipment and systems. There’s data out there that says e-commerce has been pulled forward 10 years in the past year um, as a result of what occurred with COVID. Logistics jobs have been one of the few areas of growth since COVID occurred. And that has never stopped. Retailers throughout

the entire supply chain are faced with the same challenge and same needs to put in highly automated systems and to get skilled technicians to keep these operational. So there was basically about $30 billion a year in automated systems that were being purchased. So they’re generating an ongoing demand for technicians to keep them operational. And now the demand itself has even spiked from there because there’s the exponential growth. As fast as these automated systems can be made they’re being installed in operations.

It’s easy enough to download the free resource that is on the national center for supply chain automation website, which is introduction to the automated warehouse. And there’s information in there about the warehouse itself, what the key elements are and things of that nature. Take a look, poke around a little bit at your local community colleges or tech schools, and take a look to find out what sort of industrial maintenance programs they have. As I had talked about industrial maintenance, automation, integrated systems, electronics, electromechanical systems, robotics, things of that nature, and see what sort of programs there are in that school, what sort of career pathways they offer, what sort of certificates might be available at those schools and that sort of thing.

As it relates to the career itself, you can complete one of those certificate programs or a two-year degree program in this field of study, And you are at least drug-free and able to make it to work everyday on time and can communicate in a basic fashion, you’re immediately employable at a 40 to $45,000 a year job at the completion of that. There’s no doubt about it. If you’re somebody who’s younger, and you’re looking for a career pathway that can help support you and get you off of the couch and get you enough money so that you can get your own place and begin to move your life forward. This is a career pathway that you can look at. That can help move you in that direction sooner rather than later.

Oftentimes, there’s even students that are enrolled in programs who completed a couple of electrical courses in hydraulics and pneumatics and a PLC, maybe they’re halfway through their program and they’re hired while they’re going to school. The demand was so tight around Detroit at one juncture, where if you were actually in some form of a CTE career technical education program at high school, and you’d completed one or two classes, you’re getting hired right out of high school at 18 years of age.

So the demand out there is significant and demand is significant in the supply chain, for sure in today’s logistics environment, but more broadly from a technician occupation perspective. You have both a variety of good paying jobs in a lot of different industries and a lifetime career pathway that can pay you living wages to support yourself and your family.

I would say that the biggest results for us, we’re getting the word out about the occupation itself and raising that awareness amongst the schools and in the workforce development community in general, and also the sharing of the national center resources. And as a result of that, Walmart Target and FedEx ground have internal policies. But it require that each of their local facilities adopt a local academic partner, they reach out to a community college or a tech school, or sometimes a high school or a four year and adopt that. And then they become a resource and a partner that school, literally, in the case of Walmart, that’s 185 distribution centers across the country and 185 different communities. So that kind of a metric that the center can’t necessarily report on own them and sharing it anecdotally.

And we also took advantage and leverage our industry contacts because part of the challenge for the national center is you want to get your message out nationally. But how do you do that in all the static in terms of everybody trying to get their message out, and how do you raise awareness with community colleges across the country. We try varying sorts of outreach methods, traditional through academic conferences and things of that nature at the front end, but never really had much impact, but we work with our industry partners to develop a concept, which we termed workforce development forums. And what would happen is in a given area, our industry partner who had an automated facility would host a forum of academics and other industry partners in their facility. So we would convene the group, we would talk about the occupation, introductions between those employers and the locals schools. We would do outreach. There had to be a lot of logistics going on in the area, and we do a GIS search of all of the community colleges. In tech schools that were in that circular map and then where we would invite them to come in, we do some outreach and get them to come to the industry partner and then facilitate connections, talk about the occupation and then take them on a tour of the automated warehouse to provide context to these academics.

And a lot of that was eye opening, but also gave the national center a way to introduce center resources to these academics in which they could use in their schools with their students. We did 16 of those in 14 states. And as a result of that, 65 schools participated and we actually toured 35 schools is another part of that. As a part of those trips, we will also go out and visit those schools and see their operations and meet those people. So, in terms of kind of an unintended outcome, but with a result, we developed a large list of educational collaborators of about 175 schools. And that’s a downloadable resource for industry that’s on our website in terms of industry seeking an academic partner in a given community.

Then we also had an industry leadership member from the manufacturing skill standards council. And we ended up on a long and arduous pathway for the development of a certification for the occupation. Part of the center research at the onset was looking at what certifications exists, stood o

d was that there were no certifications, no industry validated national certifications in this space. So, with our partners, we entered into an MOU and began the process it’s of developing it. The central role in that was to do the research and we convened industry groups to do that research, and they developed skill standards around it, which were vetted with industry and then ended up developing a certification around that.

And then something else that happened along that journey was that the largest, a firm called Amatrol, who is the largest provider of educational training materials and equipment in the country, began to work on a device because part of the challenge with this particular occupation, which people do the book learning, but do you really know how to do the actual hands-on skills? So Amatrol developed a device called a skill boss’ logistics device, which both teaches and assesses 100 hands on skills for the occupation itself. Directly aligned with the skills that industry gave us that they need in their warehouse, in their logistics operations. And there’s a full e-learning compliment and that certification and that device program is currently being rolled out. I think about 30 different devices have been purchased by 22 different schools.

And in addition to that, the Target corporation is running a pilot program involving the certification itself, an apprenticeship program with both existing workers and new hires. And so there’s a lot of exciting things happening in this space. So the unintended consequences of the work in the center is having some real impact in the development of an industry validated ISO accredited certification in a device directly targeted to help educate and train the technicians.